"La La Land" was supposed to be writer-director Damien Chazelle's first feature film, the one he was hoping to do well before he hit impressive heights with the one that did turn out to be his first, "Whiplash." The problem was that no studio was willing to let a first-timer do an old-fashioned full-blown singin' and dancin' musical. But when you have a hit like "Whiplash," you get to do whatever you want on your next film.
"La La Land" is pretty much a boy meets girl story, one that gets caught up in all sorts of relationship complications, but does so in a dazzling manner, with music and motion exploding all over the place.
Set in contemporary Los Angeles, it's fitting that it opens in a massive traffic jam on a freeway where, before the film's two likable and extremely attractive protagonists set eyes on each other (but don't yet properly meet), everyone else hops out of their standing-still cars and erupts into an extended one-take-no-edit song and dance extravaganza about life in L.A., wryly titled "Another Day of Sun."
This is a film about dreamers. Two of them are firmly entrenched at its center. There's wannabee actress Mia (Emma Stone) who splits her time between working in a coffee shop (ironically on the Warner Bros. lot) and running to unsuccessful auditions; and there's pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who wants only to open his own club where he can play and host pure mainstream jazz, but can't get past playing pop hits as a piano man for hire.
They first trade glimpses during a bit of mild road rage -- each in their own car --
in that opening traffic sequence. Their next shared sighting, even though no sparks fly, is what could be called a right time-right place event. Walking home alone one night, she stops in at a club where, coincidentally, he's playing piano. But it's a joint where everyone is talking, and no one is listening, except for the manager (a cameo by J.K. Simmons, the psychotic music teacher in "Whiplash") who, on that winter night, insists that the set list must be Christmas songs his customers know, and none of that "free jazz."
In a magical cinematic moment, the lights go down, a spotlight settles on Sebastian and, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, his low-key performance of "Deck the Halls" spins off into, you guessed it, "free jazz." Even though Mia, sitting at a table in the dark, is mesmerized by what she hears, Sebastian is fired before they get a chance to meet.
Time goes by. Winter turns to spring, spring turns to summer. It's easy to tell the time of year since Chazelle playfully throws cards with the names of the seasons up on the screen. Sebastian and Mia finally do meet, not exactly smoothly, but before you can say Garland-Rooney, they're walking through the Hollywood Hills, dueting on a tune called "A Lovely Night." It would be a good guess to think they're going to be a great couple, even when she admits that she hates jazz. Betting people would put money on them being a perfect match when a neat little outdoor waltz turns into a wonderful gravity-defying sequence (that some will say borrows from a scene in Woody Allen's "Everyone Says I Love You").
We are rooting for these two people, whether they're being happy together, or seeing what they believe is each of their dreams coming true: He gets a regular gig and she puts together a one-woman show. Though neither of those dreams goes exactly as planned, though the relationship is challenged by forces Sebastian and Mia can't control, though the story's ending takes on a happy-sad bittersweet flavor, "La La Land" is a marvelous respite from the violence and goofball humor and overly dramatic fare that Hollywood regularly spews out. It's a film that'll, for a couple of hours, make you forget the problems of our problematic world.
-- Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
"La La Land"
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle
With Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone